Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Great writers blind us with sight

[gary daily col. 41 November 17, 2002]

“It’s coming, Ike said. His head was next to the rail. I hear it. . . . The train came on from a distance, whistling sudden and long at a mile crossing. They waited. The coins and her bracelet were out on the track. . . .”
-from Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

Prize winning author Kent Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) will be in Terre Haute tomorrow. He will be talking about his writing and reading from his works.

Haruf is well known among those of you who participated in the “If All of Vigo County Read the Same Book” program this year. His quietly powerful novel, Plainsong, was one of the three books discussed and voted on by readers in the community. Plainsong has also been chosen by others as a book deserving special attention and discussion. It was the “One Book” choice in Kansas City and, just recently, Plainsong was chosen to be the book the entire state of Arizona will read and discuss together.

Here’s a capsule biography from Kent Haruf’s publisher. It contains material interesting enough for an entire shelf of books--fiction and non-fiction.

“Kent Haruf grew up on the high plains of northeastern Colorado. He was Educated at Nebraska Wesleyan University (B.A. 1965) and The University of Iowa (MFA 1973). He served in the Peace Corps in Turkey, teaching English as a second language to middle school kids in a village on the Anatolian Plateau. Besides that, over the years, he's worked at a variety of other places: a chicken ranch in Colorado, the Royal Gorge in the Rocky Mountains, a construction site in Wyoming, the railroad tracks in southeastern Montana, a pest control company in Kansas, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, an orphanage in Montana, a surgery wing in a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, a country school in Colorado, and a college in Nebraska. Since 1991 he's been at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale where he teaches fiction writing and forms of fiction classes to graduates and undergraduates.” [Haruf no longer teaches at SIUC.]

But finally, the fact that the novelist Kent Haruf spent time working on a chicken ranch or blasting segmented creepy crawlers into oblivion or any of these wondrous facts of his life past provides nothing of real importance about this artist. Of greatest importance is what is in his books and in the reader of those books.

What follows is some of what I wrote earlier this year about Haruf, about his writing practices and his gifts as a novelist and about the gift writers of his quality bestow on their readers.

************

Kent Haruf wrote a short piece last year on where and how he writes. It provides a nice guide to what he calls his “totemics.” While writing Plainsong his workspace was a converted coal bin in the basement of a southern Illinois bungalow. A survey of his desk top would turn up, among other things: a bird’s nest, blue bandana, red sand in a plastic bag from the stage of the new Globe theater in London and some dirt from Rowan Oaks, William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi home. And the key tools of the trade turn out to be a wide-carriage manual Royal typewriter and a sheaf of office salvaged paper, yellow in color and “pulpy” in texture.

But Kent Haruf is not ready to report for work until he adds one last touch. When he sits down at the center of this stage to write a first draft, he proceeds to pull on a stocking cap. He pulls it way on--it covers his eyes. Can’t see a thing and that’s the way he wants it. “I write,” Haruf says, “ first drafts blindly. . . . It’s the old notion of blinding yourself so you can see.” The pedigree supporting this approach ranges from Tiresias in ancient Greece to Bruce Springsteen--seers, saints and artists have all been blinded by the light.

In a sense, when we read a wonderful novel such as Haruf’s Plainsong, we are also struck “blind.” Entering into Haruf’s imagined world of Holt County, Colorado, we see with a depth and acuity often missing in the scramble of our own half-perceived and half-experienced lives. It’s not so much the author lifting scales from eyes as it is readers fully opening their mind’s eye to nuanced meanings and feelings great writers create. So deep and absorbed is this gaze that we speak of becoming “lost” in the pages of a book--in a commercial free blink, one or more hours dissolve.

And that’s only one of the reasons we praise artists of the written word like Kent Haruf. And why we are so curious about his “totemics.” Great writers blind us with sight and we yearn to know how they did it.

*****
It’s exciting to have a literary artist of Kent Haruf’s power with us. You shouldn't miss the opportunity to hear and speak with this fine writer. But most of all--read the man's books.

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